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The Downed RQ-170 and Hezbollah

by John Reed on December 7, 2011

This could be pure speculation but it’s worth pointing out. Iran claims to have downed an RQ-170 stealth drone intact using electronic warfare techniques. Just last month, the Wall Street Journal reported on rumors that Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon may have captured an Israeli drone using similar techniques.

No one can recall the last time that an Israeli drone malfunctioned over Lebanon and crashed, and there were no reports of antiaircraft fire. The Israelis have said nothing. Neither has Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and arch foe of Israel. The [UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon] is now abuzz with speculation that Hezbollah may have found a way of electronically disabling drones.

If true, the Iranians and their allies would have to have figured out how to break into the UAV’s encrypted satellite communications or use some sort of magnetic pulse to fly the planes electronics. Doing so would require “a tremendous leap” in technical ability from 2008, when Iranian-backed insurgents in Iraq where tapping into unsecured video feeds from American drones there, as one source tells DT.

Still, as Trimble points out, Iran just received the 1L222 Avtobaza radar jammers designed to detect and jam side-looking airborne radars, targeting radars in air-to-ground missiles, and an aircraft’s terrain following radars. Its ability to mess with the guidance systems of air-to-ground missiles would be very useful in defending against UAVs. While this system might be operational in Iran, it’s a stretch to think that this tech has already been shipped more than 600 miles from Iran to Lebanon in time to down the Isreali drones. Also, the Avtobaza is fairly old technology that might have a hard time against 21st Century stealth jets like the RQ-170.

Meanwhile, reports claiming that Israel is deliberatley crashing its UAVs in Lebanon counter the notion that Iran has developed and shared the key to taking over its enemies drones remotely.

From the UK’s Telegraph newspaper:

Mr Silverstein quotes an Israeli source with “considerable military experience and IDF military intelligence” claiming that the drone was crashed deliberately and that Hizbollah militants fell for the so-called Trojan Horse trick.

In his version of events, Shia militants discovered the fallen recognisance craft and took it back to their base for investigation. Israel is aware that Hizbollah has been working for more than a year to gather sufficient intelligence to enable their engineers to scramble Israeli surveillance technology.

In the Shia militants’ eagerness to analyse the prized drone, however, the fighters failed to detect an explosive device concealed within it, which was detonated remotely on Wednesday evening.

So, it’s still unclear if there’s any connection between Iran’s claims of downing an RQ-170 — Tehran has yet to provide proof they have the UAV — and speculation that Hezbollah used EW to down an Isreali drone. Still, it’s worth paying attention to.

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{ 67 comments… read them below or add one }

dddd December 7, 2011 at 11:52 am

Awesome post!


Copper December 7, 2011 at 12:36 pm
Vejadu December 7, 2011 at 11:59 am

And what tie to the recent keystroke logging bug that was found in the UAV controller's software . . .


Rob December 7, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I dont see how they could use a magnetic pulse to fly the aircraft as stated in article. Possibly a microwave weapon disabed the aircraft like a stun gun, as I suspect a high usage of electric motors vs haudraulics. If I stun a man he falls, possibly slightly controlled, but I do not control his nerves so that he sits through my commands. That is a big difference in technical ability to control and fly an aircraft vs intercept a video feed or jam its control motors.


anonimouse9 December 7, 2011 at 12:47 pm

The article said using a pulse to harm the drone. I had to read it twice as I thought the same thing too. Just not the greatest wording.


TMB December 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm

I think he meant to say "fry."


dddd December 7, 2011 at 3:12 pm

clearly he meant to say fry


jamFRIDGE December 7, 2011 at 12:22 pm

I heard on the radio that it crashed into the side of a mountain, it wasn’t “taken down”


Manny Ramierz December 7, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Win, Lose, or Drone!!!

Don't Drone me, Bro!!!


Copper December 7, 2011 at 12:35 pm

TECHNOLOGY – tech·nol·o·gy [ tek nólləjee ]
1. application of tools and methods
2. method of applying technical knowledge
3. machines and systems
1. something that creates as many problems as it fixes


ben December 8, 2011 at 5:35 am

The website is called defenseTECH…
Go be a luddite somewhere else.


JE McKellar December 7, 2011 at 1:06 pm

This is why drones are never going to fully replace manned aircraft. They are wholly dependent on external electronic communication to function, and as EW technology progresses, those external communications will never be completely secure. You need a human pilot whose capable of improvising and making sound judgements when isolated, who not only understands the current battle plan, but how that plan might have to be modified to achieve evolving mission goals in an ever-changing combat environment. Same goes for the grunts on the ground, they have to be able to make sound strategic decisions when their C4 networks go on the fritz.

No amount of technology will ever be able to replace good people on the front lines.


Commisar12 December 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm

I know, I can't stand the drone advocates here who think that EVERYTHING will be unmanned. Drones are great for long range deep strike mission and long boring recon flights, bit I have heard that the operator have terrible situational awareness, they liken it to looking through a straw. I HIGHLY doubt that manned aircraft are going away anytime in the next couple of decades. Also, the movie "avatar" mentions in it's back story that UAV's have become pretty uncommon on Earth as, get this "terrorists and rogue states have acquired portable directed EMP weapons that fry the CPUs of the drones."


Maxtrue December 7, 2011 at 7:10 pm

The same DEW can fry pilots. The advantage of manned air craft is that they are larger and can carry the technology to counter DEW. We could build larger drones. Provided loitering isn't part of the mission, hypersonics could overfly with relative impunity. Perhaps this shows us successful sorties involve manned and unmanned air craft with an eye on targeting enemy DEW and radar sources and well as follow up for rescue or crash site destruction


Commisar12 December 7, 2011 at 7:17 pm

I know, I believe the future is a mix of manned and unmanned systems


Riceball December 8, 2011 at 10:44 am

Not to mention the extensive use of fly by wire technology these days. You fry the FBW electronics your plane becomes a flying brick, without the controlling computer your controls do nothing since they're all electronic with no physical linkage to the control surfaces.


Chuck December 13, 2011 at 2:37 pm

"They are wholly dependent on external electronic communication to function, and as EW technology progresses, those external communications will never be completely secure."

Shows how little you know about state of the art unmanned combat air systems. Aircraft like this are completely autonomous. Nobody is "flying" them. They can fly an entire mission in a comm-out environment with NO communications with the ground whatsoever.

The most likely failure scenario is a failure of the mission management software/hardware, resulting in straight and level flight until the fuel ran out, followed by a controlled glide to the ground. There's no way the Iranians took control of this aircraft, unless they had stacks of info on the C2 comm protocols, access to our satellite ground stations, and the crypto keys for that day's mission. Seem likely?


Black Owl December 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Quote: "Doing so would require “a tremendous leap” in technical ability from 2008"

You guys smell something? I'm smelling something Russian right now?

I'm thinking that using unmanned vehicles to replace manned vehicles just got pushed back several years.

I also think this is also why we shouldn't buy the F-35. If one of them got shot down all our technology would be up for grabs at the crash site.


Commisar12 December 7, 2011 at 1:36 pm

I know, we should keep flying 30 year old designs FOREVER. it's not like the PAK-FA and the J-20 are actual threats. /s But on a more serious note, I know, I can't stand the drone advocates here who think that EVERYTHING will be unmanned. Drones are great for long range deep strike mission and long boring recon flights, bit I have heard that the operator have terrible situational awareness, they liken it to looking through a straw. I HIGHLY doubt that manned aircraft are going away anytime in the next couple of decades. Also, the movie "avatar" mentions in it's back story that UAV's have become pretty uncommon on Earth as, get this "terrorists and rogue states have acquired portable directed EMP weapons that fry the CPUs of the drones."


Adhocracy December 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm

If Avatar was right then the next insurgency will have blue knockers.


blight December 7, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Which makes little sense as the high tech; from 3d holographic displays to articulated bipedal walkers to flying dropships and support gunships shown in the movie would be equally vulnerable to "portable directed EMP weapons".

The real lesson of Avatar is that internal dissent must be quashed and species traitors must be exterminated with prejudice before they threaten your unobtanium mines.


Commisar12 December 7, 2011 at 7:09 pm

yeah, but those things are all for visual effect :) anyway, ti was an interesting little anecdote that I remembered.


blight December 7, 2011 at 9:58 pm

I totally forgot that anecdote…then again, I arrived late to the theater.

NEFARIOUS BICYCLE December 7, 2011 at 10:26 pm

blight I agree with every thing you said about Avatar! PARTICULARLY ABOUT GETTING RID OF HUMAN TRAITORS. How much nicer the rest of about 67 remain mintues of the movie would be!


blight December 7, 2011 at 10:45 pm

The remaining minutes would be basically Apocalypse Now. With blue people on bird-creatures.

Black Owl December 7, 2011 at 11:32 pm

When will people finally understand that the age of a design doesn't count for anything if the design is still effective?


Engineer December 7, 2011 at 5:01 pm

I agree – the russians were the first ones I thought of


NEFARIOUS BICYCLE December 7, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Um BLACK Owl Could Have been Worse. " NO DEAD OR CAPTURED CREW" in this case unlike the EP-3 Aires! At least the the designers of the RQ-170 did not go over broad in puting too much leading edge tech. Aviation week expert bill sweetman wrote back about 2009 The design lacks several elements common to stealth engineering. Namely notched landing gear doors it has a curved wing plan from and the exhaust is not shielded by the wing postulates that these elements suggest the designers have avoided "highly sensitive technologies" due to the near certainty of operational loss inherent with a single engine design and a desire to avoid risk of copromising leading edge technology. How forsighted and prophetic realistic the people who made this Drone & others?


Five December 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm

While I doubt that the public will ever get the complete/truthful version of events (not that they necessarily need to), hopefully the military will know enough of what happened, as that future drones – ie X47 – can be engineered (both physically and electronically) to overcome drone counter measures.


Lance December 7, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Got to love a self destruct device.


John Moore December 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Resistance is futile, we will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.



chaos0xomega December 7, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Perhaps the wakeup call/reality check that the drone-phile community needs so they quit trying to force the idea of "drones are the future of aerial warfare" down our throats.

In any case, i doubt Iran has much of anything. They definitely did not capture it "intact". The damned thing was flying miles up into the air, it would have wrecked itself in the fall… The alternative is that the situation is far worse than anyone is letting on, and Iran in fact found a way to hijack control of the system and bring it in for a landing at one of their airfields (doubt it).


Adhocracy December 7, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Perhaps it just achieved sentience and went off to do it’s own thing.


blight December 7, 2011 at 10:07 pm



Adhocracy December 8, 2011 at 4:36 am

No, straight up. It said so on its Facebook page.


Maxtrue December 7, 2011 at 7:17 pm

What manned air craft, the F-35? How would the raptor fare in the new conflict enviornment? What we need is a stealthy, fast bomber able to take DEW. I'm not sure our government is going to spend the money anytime soon. Remember, the two blasts in Iran were not delivered from the sky.

We should consider ground spybots with a definite self destruct switch.


Bart December 7, 2011 at 7:42 pm

I think it is time for Iran to have a nuclear "accident".


Ezra Shabot December 8, 2011 at 10:59 am

Seriously I hope minds like yours command US in the near future, that way we won't have to wait long to see that country fall into shambles. Alas the people leading the US do have a brain unlike you. Are you even aware that the only reason the US won't invade Iran is because they can close the Strait of Hormuz and deal a killing blow to your already weak economy?


saberhagen December 10, 2011 at 1:56 pm

and your economy is strong? What's your main source of income? Oh yes, oil. Closing Hormuz is like choking yourself to death. Genius!


blight December 7, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Reading the forbidden Wikipedia:

On the basis of the few publicly-available photographs of the RQ-170, aviation expert Bill Sweetman has assessed that the UAV is equipped with an electro-optical/infrared sensor and possibly an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar mounted in its belly fairing. He has also speculated that the two fairings over the UAV's wings may house datalinks and that the belly and above wing fairings could be designed for modular payloads, allowing the UAV to be used for strike missions and electronic warfare.

Which cites http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/blogs/defense/inde

What kind of techs would be "marketable" by Iran?

-Engine technology. The United States remains at the lead in engine technology (thanks GE/PW).

-Avionics. Also top-notch. Euro stuff could be competitive, and perhaps in some places, it is competitive.

-Stealth coatings. The PRC already has stealth coating samples from the Pakistani helicopter. The Russians (maybe Chinese?) have F-117 coating and comparatively intact airframe componentry.

-Satcom equipment. The Russians don't have the infrastructure to tele-operate UAVs (maybe I'm wrong?), so maybe they haven't put a lot into investing in the receiver equipment. Might be a leg up here with the right pieces.


Chimp December 8, 2011 at 1:53 am

My guess is that the biggest win for the PRC would be the coatings. Having an engine, and building copies, are two different stories. The electronics less so, but the required ecosystem probably isn't there yet. Bet there are a few people in Iran now with cheque books out.


blight December 7, 2011 at 10:24 pm

AvWeek has some blurbs on UCAS: http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_gene

The first of two X-47Bs completed Block 1 envelope-expansion flight tests at Edwards AFB, Calif., on Nov. 17, and air vehicle 1 (AV-1) is to be shipped to Pax River by year-end to begin Block 2 carrier-suitability testing, including land-based catapult launches and arrested landings. The second X-47B, AV-2, made its first flight at Edwards on Nov. 22.

In 16 sorties since its initial flight on Feb. 4, AV-1 has expanded the envelope to 220 kt. airspeed and 15,000 ft. altitude—a task that was originally expected to take a year and require 49 flights. “AV-2 will continue to expand the envelope, and when it ships [to Pax River] all the necessary corners to go to the carrier will have been cleared,” says Carl Johnson, Northrop Grumman vice president and UCAS-D program manager.

While gathering flying-qualities data, AV-1 has flown simulated carrier approaches at altitude. “All X-47B flight-test data look very good and will support our carrier demonstration objectives,” says Capt. Jaime Engdahl, Navy UCAS program manager. “We found no technical issues during any of the flights and it took considerably less flight time than predicted to execute all of our planned test points.” As a result, AV-2 could be moved to NAS Pax early, in spring 2012.

The speed of envelope expansion is due in part to the accuracy and predictability with which the 62.1-ft.-wingspan X-47B executes the preprogrammed test points. But it is also due to Northrop’s familiarly with its signature cranked-kite planform, and to extensive modeling and simulation. Engdahl says the aircraft simulation model accounts for about a third of the 3.4 million lines of software code for the UCAS-D program.

I'm weirded out by the subsequent paragraphs about using more simulations for testing…


Chet Steddman December 8, 2011 at 3:38 am

You would think that if Iran did capture the RQ-170 intact, they would have paraded the thing around and had plenty of pictures for propaganda purposes…certainly that would be quite an achievement for them…however, with reports of the US gov't discussing options to destroy the craft and not doing so, maybe suggests it was in Iranian hands and they were not ready to start a conflict over this? If the drone is crashed in a remote location in Iran I'd certainly send a cruise missle after it, but that's me….and I doubt it landed anywhere near a populated area. I feel like that would have resulted in civilians or press taking some snapshots and getting footage which probably would have been leaked by now…


Steven December 8, 2011 at 11:06 am

Wow, lot of UAV haters here. What did you say after our 'Manned" SR-71 Spy-plane piloted by Powers was shot down?

See now we have pieces of a UAV, not a POW situation…much less risky.


Dr. Doobie December 8, 2011 at 11:23 am

Powers was in a U-2, not an SR-71.

But point taken.


si doel December 8, 2011 at 11:21 am

all of you looking panic regard this case. posiblle iranian army have technology to hijack the flight


Jay December 8, 2011 at 12:55 pm
aissa December 8, 2011 at 1:10 pm

the possibility of a booby trapped uav is an old joke now hizbullah is a highly intel-tech capable militia robert baer quoted " the hizbullah is as good as the kgb "


Ali December 9, 2011 at 6:29 am

This is just a demo for US & Israel the technology that Iran & Hezbullah have is way much more, its a simple letter we know were you are, what you doing , we can down u at anytime its just a matter of action to be taken, for you who said u don't believe Iran had it watch TV today and sure non of the US news watch Iran news and u will see it…..


@ December 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm

“آمريكا هيچ غلطي نمي تواند بكند”


Matt December 13, 2011 at 2:40 pm

REALLY FOLKS…. You haven't figured out it was intentional on our part so our computer viruses would be uploaded to their computer systems while they (Iran) think they are downloading encrypted intel to hand over to China?


bobby_ray January 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm

It was a U-2, not an SR-71.


=D October 11, 2012 at 6:29 pm

Hizb +1 the ***** 0



=D October 11, 2012 at 6:30 pm

I meant the kayek, not *****



melman December 7, 2011 at 1:19 pm

the sherman was a terrible tank design

if you want to copy a wwii era tank, copy the t-34


Rabbit December 8, 2011 at 1:06 am

As others have said. Where do you intend to get the manpower to crew all these tanks in our great nation of draft dodgers?


Bill December 8, 2011 at 9:24 am

Yeah, overwhelming force, cause that's exactly what we have, a lot of expendable personnel in the military – If you recall, the "Russian WW2 attack model" doesn't really do well with PR, people tend to get upset when they know their sons could've been protected, but brass chose not to.


Logicless December 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Links to the pictures of the down craft?


MCQknight December 7, 2011 at 2:04 pm

If the Iranians actually did capture the drone at least somewhat intact, then it would be in their best interest not to disclose pictures. If the U.S knew they had the drone intact then they would probably take some course of action to minimize Iran's gain (be it modifying drones, changing communications frequencies, ops procedures, etc.) If the U.S thinks the drone just carved a crater into the ground and exploded then there probably isn't much need to fret over it, and thus no need for the U.S to react. Iran will likely not release pictures until they have either recovered the maximum intellligence amount possible from the aircraft or at an opportunity that will maximize the political embarrassment for the U.S.


Juuso December 7, 2011 at 1:35 pm

1. Weight issues.

2. Safety, would you like to ride in a helicopter lined with incendiary devices?


dddd December 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm

In addition, if this thing was flying over Pakistan, Afghanistan, and, reportedly, North Korea, then I find it hard to believe the CIA/military would place extremely sensitive technology on board. The theory of stealth design is well-disseminated anyhow. I think the most worrisome thing would be if they achieved access to EW transmitters or algorithms.


blight December 7, 2011 at 10:05 pm

What ever happened to the good ole' programmed self destruct?

When did any nation-state ever put self-destruct systems into their standard military equipment as a standard practice? Even in the RVN, and even with Iran, we never had equipment that blew up. Nor did the USSR.

Many times, airstrikes are tricky to do especially if the takedown occurs near a city with collateral damage, or children decide to go play near it. This was the case with the F-117 in Bosnia. Nobody really talks about the takedown of Scott O'Grady's F-16, but I imagine there was tech out of that one worth saving.

The stealth helicopter couldn't be taken down because we didn't have air assets available to do the bombing. No B-2 support, for example…I mean, if that asset goes down in Pakistan supporting a stealth helicopter force, then what?


major.rod December 7, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Sherman, T34? Fine, if you and your kids man them!


PMI December 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm

You seem to forget that Iran is already claiming to have possession of the platform. They are currently in the worst possible situation regarding your scenario…the US is in the same position regarding a need to make changes to minimize risk just in case while Iran doesn't get the full political benefit of their claims as they are unable to substantiate them.

If Iran was intent on following your plan they would be publicly disclaiming any knowledge at all of aircraft.


Maxtrue December 7, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Bush was told that Chinese pilots were coming close to crashing into our spy planes. So what did the DOD do? Did they implement a plan that would definitely keep China from getting their hands on our advanced tech should an accident occur? Our U-2 pilots risked death from missiles over Russia. Has something changed in our military culture. I'm sure Warthog pilots risk death coming in low to support ground forces. As far as an act of war, Iran has killed US soldiers and that wasn't war?

Too bad we don't have a few Blackbirds armed with hellfires. Not much the Iranians can do to hit it. DEW is going to increase in theater so I expect we will have to rethink drones and manned air craft. Highly focused microwave will become a problem though I am not saying what exactly if anything "disabled" the drones mentioned. To hit a drone with DEW however you have to first see it. So the story regarding Iran has not been fully flushed out.

Also, some say the Israelis had their radar off when hit by a Hizb'Allah missile. Other sources say the ship was jammed by Hizzie radar. It would be nice if someone could clear up the facts, but obviously many things will remain secret as covert activity spiral forward.

As for safety, our astronauts flew in capsules with explosive bolts on the hatches and until a disaster struck Apollo on the launch pad, oxygen instead of normal air. Aren't our most secret tech used in critical crisis burdened by the prudent no mater the dangers? I am sure something could be designed to provide adequate safety AND assurance technology costing billions in research don't become gifts to the enemy.


Jim37F December 8, 2011 at 9:45 am

Stalin's favorite method of clearing those pesky German minefields? Just march his army straight over top!


joe December 8, 2011 at 11:29 am

Time for the clone troopers?


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